2000: Woods’ dominance still resonates

2000: Woods’ dominance still resonates

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2000: Woods’ dominance still resonates

He was up before sunrise, awakened by the six-stroke lead he’d taken to bed Friday night and the six holes he’d be playing that morning. Always a better golfer than a sleeper, Tiger Woods began his Saturday with three balls and a putter, refining his stroke on the hotel-room carpet, as if those few hours of rest might have sabotaged a week that took 20 years to build.

The rug in his suite, of course, was nothing like the greens at Pebble Beach, site of the 2000 U.S. Open.

“During the practice rounds, he couldn’t get comfortable,” recalls Woods’ caddie, Steve Williams. “Fast and bumpy is not a very good combination. It was quite difficult to chip the ball close, so you were going to have a lot of putts in the 10- to 15-foot range. Tiger was on the practice green almost until dark Wednesday night. Mostly short putts, 6 to 10 feet.”

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A dense fog had smothered the famed coastal links Thursday afternoon, disrupting the late half of the draw and providing further clearance for Woods, who teed off early and shot 65 under sunny skies. The ensuing suspension of play, however, moved Tiger’s second-round start back to 4:40 p.m. Friday. He got in 12 holes before dark, finishing with a 30-footer for birdie to end the day at 8 under par.

Secretariat had come roaring out of the gate. No one else was even close to close.

“The Sunday before, Tiger played with Adam Scott out at my place (Rio Secco Golf Club in Las Vegas) and set the course record (64), and that was with a penalty stroke in a 25-mph wind,” says Butch Harmon, who was Woods’ instructor at the time. “I mean, it was really blowing. We all ran straight to the casino and bet on him to win at Pebble.”

Saturday’s restart began at 7:30 with Woods, Jim Furyk and Jesper Parnevik picking up their rounds on the par-4 13th. Williams got to Woods’ room earlier than usual because, as he says, “You know Pebble – you warm up in one spot and go putt in another, then you take a shuttle to your starting hole, and everything is rather spread out.” Since Woods had been awake for a while and putting for just as long, he saw no need to visit the practice green.

So off they went: history to chase, a field to demolish – and a serious crisis to avoid. On the 13th tee, Williams realized that three of the six balls previously in Tiger’s bag had been left on the floor in Woods’ room. No big deal, at least until Woods staked his approach at the 15th, rolled in another 10-footer for birdie, then flipped the ball to a kid as he walked off the green.

Williams was getting nervous. “All I could say to myself was, ‘How am I going to get that ball back?’ We play 16 and 17, no problem, and I wanted him to hit an iron off 18, anyway. He’s got a seven-stroke lead, but he says, ‘Give me that (bleeping) driver’ and hits it left. Now we’re down to one ball and there’s water in play on the second shot.”

When: June 17-20

Where: Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links

Par/Yardage: 71/7,040

Defending champion: Lucas Glover (4-under 276 at Bethpage Black)

Purse / first place (2009): $7.5 million ($1.35 million)

Television

ESPN: Thursday-Friday (1-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m.)

NBC: Thursday-Friday (3-5 p.m.), Saturday (4:30-11 p.m.), Sunday (3-9 p.m.)

As his drive sailed toward the Pacific Ocean, Woods unleashed a couple of choice obscenities for those watching at home on NBC. What he didn’t know is that he was about to hit his last Nike One. Williams never mentioned it. Again, the caddie suggested an iron. Again, Woods chose the driver and launched a towering fade to the right half of the fairway. Despite bogeys on both back-nine par 5s, he was in with a 69, his lead still six.

Says Parnevik: “I remember talking with Lance (Ten Broeck, his caddie) afterward and we couldn’t think of a single putt (Woods) missed inside 20 feet. It was crazy, what he was doing. One after the other. I mean, on those greens? Even in June, it’s still Pebble.”

Ten years later, count Furyk among the flabbergasted. Not because he spent 36 holes watching Woods put on a clinic – “he made a pile of putts but he also made some mistakes, which makes it more phenomenal,” says Furyk, who had no idea Woods was down to his last ball that Saturday morning. “Is that true?” he asks. “Come on! That’s an amazing story.”

Furyk himself had hit a 4-wood off the 18th tee to solidify his chances of making the cut. The guy 13 strokes ahead of him, meanwhile, had no such worries. Woods didn’t find out about the shortage of balls until after the tournament, and only then, it was because he asked Williams why he seemed so anxious at the end of the second round. The two men still laugh about it, but if Woods had run out of ammo, it’s doubtful he would have found anything funny about his options as designated by the USGA’s one-ball rule.

He could have sent Williams to the pro shop to buy a sleeve, but because Woods always has played a ball designed specifically for him – not sold to the public – there would have been a penalty involved. Williams could have gone back to Woods’ room and fetched the missing Nikes, which might have led to a penalty for delay of play, or he could have simply borrowed a Top-Flite from Furyk or a Titleist from Parnevik at the cost of two shots per hole (with a maximum four-shot penalty).

You know what’s really amazing?

Woods could have played all six holes that morning with someone else’s ball, absorbed the punishment and still won by 11.

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To call it the greatest performance in U.S. Open history probably doesn’t do it justice. Not only did Woods finish at 12 under at a tournament where no one else broke par, he did it with a triple bogey Saturday afternoon at the third hole, one of Pebble’s easiest par 4s. He did it on a setup, says two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen, “that was as balanced and fair as any we’ve seen. It really didn’t favor anybody at the start of the week.”

So this was quite different from Woods’ previous romp at the 1997 Masters, where he overpowered the layout to such a degree that the club officials began pondering a bigger, tighter, tougher Augusta National. The subsequent changes came to be known as “Tigerproofing,” but if his 12-stroke margin of victory in ’97 shook pro golf’s competitive landscape like a major earthquake, it only hammered home the notion that the little ballpark in Georgia was built for the long hitter.

Harmon coached Woods from 1993 until mid-2002. “At that point in his career,” Harmon says, “some people thought Tiger would never win a U.S. Open because he didn’t drive the ball straight enough. There is no better way to shut people up than to win by 15.”

Fair point. It’s easy to forget that Woods had an excellent chance to win at Pinehurst in 1999. Holding a share of the lead on the par-3 17th, he knocked his tee shot into a greenside bunker, then missed a 5-footer for par – one of the few short putts Woods has failed to convert with a major title on the line. The Payne Stewart-Phil Mickelson duel is all anyone remembers, but in June ’99, Woods had gone majorless for more than two years, having provided no follow-up to his lapping of the field at Augusta National.

What Woods had done at Pebble four months before the 100th U.S. Open, however, was a lot more mind-boggling than historic. He appeared hopelessly out of contention midway into the back nine of a Monday finish, then wiped out a seven-stroke deficit in seven holes to chase down Matt Gogel. The charge was ignited when Woods holed out a wedge from the 15th fairway, launching an eagle-birdie-par-birdie finish – one of those see-it-to-believe-it stretches.

It would serve as ample warning, but in retrospect, not nearly ample enough.

“That spring,” Harmon recalls, “you could see him getting very comfortable with the things we’d worked on. He didn’t have to think about it anymore. It was coming naturally, and it was one of few times in my life when I said, ‘Wow, he’s got it.’ You could see something very special coming.”

Fresh off defending his title at the Memorial, Woods played three early practice rounds with John Cook and Mark O’Meara, who was telling anybody who would listen that he had seen the Next Level during their games back home at Isleworth.

“He hasn’t missed a shot in two days. It’s Wednesday morning and we’re on the 12th, par 3, wind coming in off the right,” O’Meara says. “Tiger’s got a 6-iron or something, he hits this high cut a yard right of the pin and holds it up against the breeze for what seemed like 20 minutes, and it comes down right on the flag.

“Butch goes, ‘Nice shot, Tiger.’ And I’m like, ‘Really, Butch?’ Jeez, you guys sure can teach. We get to the 16th and I feel a tug on my shoulder. It’s Johnny Miller. He looks at Tiger and goes, ‘How’s he hitting it?’ I say, ‘Johnny, you see that kid right there? He’s the greatest ever to play this game.’ Johnny says, ‘You didn’t answer my question.’ I tell him, ‘No, Johnny, you’re not hearing me. If this kid doesn’t win the tournament, I’ll be shocked.’ ”

Woods played his first 22 holes without a bogey, then immediately responded with back-to-back birdies at the sixth and seventh. Miguel Angel Jimenez, who trailed Woods by a stroke after one round, was doing his best to hang around, but as darkness closed in Friday evening, it was accompanied by an air of inevitability. One man was simply better than everyone else, and this was the week to make that point loud and clear.

“He got a bit of a break with the weather, but it was very nominal, and looking back, it didn’t make any difference at all,” says Paul Azinger, who tied for 12th. “I think it was the first time all the other players were in awe. You realized he truly was a great player, but now, there was another level we never even dreamt of, and we were watching it unfold before our very eyes.

“It was almost like someone living in the late 1800s or early 1900s inventing the Internet. I mean, you couldn’t even imagine what he was doing! That golf course was ridiculously hard. The guy won by 15 with a triple. The guy shot 12 under with a whiff! I mean, come on!”

The swing-and-miss – and you can call it that – occurred in some high rough right of the third fairway, making it the signature swipe in the third-round triple. Woods drove it in some tall stuff and couldn’t get out – it wasn’t a case of him trying to do too much with the recovery shot.

“I don’t know how it ended up where it did, but I could barely see the ball,” Woods said that night.

A mess had been made. Woods’ lead was down to, uh, five.

“At that point, I think everyone had a glimmer of hope,” Janzen says. “You’re thinking maybe the U.S. Open pressure is getting to him. Nope.”

Woods shot even-par 71 despite the disaster, 2 under from the fourth hole onward. When he settled for par on the 18th, the lead was back up to 10.

“Everyone goes there to win, everyone loves the challenge of a U.S. Open and the burden of proof, and as it turns out, everyone is playing for second,” Azinger says. “You have no chance to win and it’s just an awful feeling, very discouraging, but at the same time, Tiger’s play that week is one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen.”

To fully grasp the concept of how Woods’ 15-stroke victory inflicted competitive brain damage among his peers and toughest rivals, there are a few things worth noting. In 1999 and early 2000, David Duval widely was considered the best player in the game, having bumped Tiger from the top spot in the Official Golf World Ranking 15 months earlier. Woods did return to No. 1 after winning the ’99 PGA Championship, but that victory was best known for the late charge by Sergio Garcia, who took Tiger to the wire.

The next March, Hal Sutton beat Woods in a head-to-head duel at The Players Championship. Two weeks later, Vijay Singh won the Masters. Tiger played horribly in the first round and needed a strong weekend to end solo fifth. That spring, challengers were coming from all sides. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

“I honestly think some guys were upset by what happened at Pebble,” Janzen says. “He had already done this (win by a huge margin) once, now he’s done it again, and it’s like, how are we going to keep up with this guy? I know I started feeling it at the ’97 Masters, the added pressure to be perfect, which takes you out of your own game. You start forcing things and trying to execute better, and as soon as something goes wrong, you get frustrated because you know you can’t beat him.”

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No one was affected more by Woods’ over-the-top dominance than Ernie Els, whose T-2 at Pebble was the second of three consecutive runner-up major finishes that year. Els’ frustration was evident to the media afterward, as the onslaught of questions about Tiger’s historic performance amounted to something of a dubious consolation prize.

Woods had just broken Old Tom Morris’ record for the largest margin of victory at a major, a mark that had stood for 138 years. The question put to Els was: Which is more impressive, winning by 15, which destroyed Old Tom’s mark from 1862, or finishing at 12 under? Ernie’s response: “Old Tom Morris! Old Tom Morris? If you put Old Tom Morris out there today, Tiger Woods probably would beat him by 80 shots.”

As Miller would say, Els really didn’t answer the question. Old Tom Watson did, however, when asked for some historical perspective one round into his astonishing performance at last summer’s British Open at Turnberry: “By far and away, the most amazing thing that has ever happened in golf was Tiger’s U.S. Open victory at Pebble Beach.”

In this case, we all would be wise to consider the source.

John Hawkins is an award-winning freelance writer from Connecticut

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